Category Archives: Dark Age London

DARK AGE LONDON contd.

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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Building Works

Within the walls of the City, the first St Paul’s Cathedral was founded by Bishop Mellitus and the Kentish King Ethelburg in 604, a matter of a few short years after the arrival of the Gregorian mission in 597.  Again as the  Venerable Bede put it:  “In the Year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, ordained … Mellitus to preach to the province of the East Saxons … .  … [W]hen this province … received the word of truth, by the preaching of Mellitus, King Ethelbert built the church of St Paul the Apostle, in the city of London, where he and his successors should have their episcopal see … ”.  The   first cathedral  went on to be destroyed by fire in 675.  The second, “The Church of Paulesbyri”, was built during the  Bishopric of  Erkenwald, between 675-85,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 961.  The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The church of All Hallows Barking was  originally built in  around 675.  That of St Peter-upon-Cornhill was built at least as long ago as 1038, being  mentioned in the will of Bishop Aelfric, who died in that year.  And that of St Lawrence Jewry at least as long ago as 1046, wood from a coffin in the churchyard being  dendrochronologically dated to  that year.   Many other churches are of probable or possible Saxon origin, the best substantiated being  St Benet Fink, where a grave-slab tentatively dated on stylistic grounds to  the late tenth or early eleventh century has been found.  The palace of the Mercian King Offa was originally built in the eighth century.   What is now known as Queenhithe was first recorded, as “Ethered’s Hithe”, in 898; and it is evident, from dendrochronologically-dated timbers re-used in a revetment on the river-front, that an arcaded “aisled hall” – in context most likely a royal palace or other high-status building – was built here between 956-79.  And Billingsgate was first recorded in around 1000.

Without the walls, in Southwark, the nunnery of St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was founded in 606.  In  Westminster, the parish church of St Clement Danes on the Strand, “so called because Harold (surnamed Harefoot) King of England of the Danish line and other Danes were here buried”,  was at least purportedly originally  built in wood by Alfred in the late ninth century, and subsequently rebuilt in stone by Cnut in the early tenth; and in Camden, the church of St Andrew Holborn, in wood, at least as long ago as 951, being referred to as an “old wooden church” in a Charter of that year.  Also in Westminster, the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter was founded by Bishop Dunstan and King Edgar in 960, on what was then Thorney Island (and, according to legend, the site of a church founded by Sebert in 604); and the Palace of Westminster, by Cnut, in 1016.  The Monastery was subsequently  rebuilt, as Westminster Abbey, under Edward “The Confessor”, in the years up to 1065; and the Palace was also rebuilt at this  time.   A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote in 1065: “Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery [founded by Bishop Dunstan under King Edgar the Peaceable and] dedicated to St Peter, but insignificant in buildings … .  … The King [Edward the Confessor], therefore  … gave his attention to that place, for it both lay hard by the famous and rich town and also was a delightful spot, … [and] … decided to have his burial place there [he was to die in 1066].  Accordingly, he ordered that out of the tithes of all his revenues should be started the building of a noble edifice, worthy of the Prince of the Apostles … ”.

The layout  of the streets in the Saxon City of Lundenburg  was essentially  longitudinal, such as to allow easy access  to Lundenwic to the west.  The principal streets were Eastcheap to the east and Cheapside to the west, with Leadenhall Street and Cornhill to the north, and Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street to the south, of the old Roman Basilica and Forum in the centre (note in this context that the Saxons appear to have held Roman ruins in superstitious awe, a line in an Old English poem entitled “The Ruin” referring to them as “enta geweorc” or “labours of giants”).  Saxon street names were characteristically blunt, often  referring simply to available goods or services (“c(h)eap” meant  “market”).

Surviving Structures

Structures that survive from Saxon and Viking London  are extremely few and far between.

Essentially nothing now  remains of the original Saxon fabric in St Paul’s Cathedral, St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral),  or St Lawrence Jewry.  Nothing remains either of the palace of the Mercian King Offa, incorporated into St Alban Wood Street, in turn severely damaged during  the Blitz of the Second World War, and substantially demolished in the post-war period.  Nor anything of  Queenhithe or Billingsgate, other than the names  (and the aforementioned timbers from Queenhithe, now in the Museum of London).  Nor of the folkmoot or husting.

However, there are surviving – seventh-century and later – Saxon remains in the church of All Hallows Barking.  These include a fine stone arch possibly as old as the late seventh century, c. 675, incorporating Roman tiles; and, in the crypt, two stone crosses, one of 900 and the other of 1000, the former plain and simple, and bearing  a Saxon Runic inscription, and the latter  beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing  a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts, a characteristic of “Dark Age” iconography.

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There is also some surviving precisely-dated eleventh-century  and  imprecisely-dated pre-eleventh-century stone-work fabric  in  the church of St Bride, off Fleet Street, the latter of which has been postulated, although not proven, to date to the late fifth or early sixth century, the church’s purported founder Bride, or Bridget, the   Abbess of Kildare in Ireland, living  from 450-525.    And in Westminster Abbey, there is a surviving eleventh-century shrine to Edward “The Confessor”.  And an eleventh-century crypt, containing the Chapel of the Pyx.

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Further  afield, there is a Saxon altar-stone in St Pancras Old Church in Camden, tentatively dated on stylistic grounds to the late sixth century, around  the time of the conversion of the Saxons by St Augustine in 597, and the construction of the first incarnation of St Paul’s Cathedral in 604 (interestingly, the land on which the church stands was granted to  St Paul’s in 604).  The  altar-stone, inlaid into  a Georgian altar-table, depicts five crosses, whose unusual forms are remarkably  reminiscent of that on the tomb on a small island in the Firth of Lorne believed to be of Columba’s mother Eithne, who died in the late sixth century.   There is also a Saxon rood (cross) in the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney, of the tenth.

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And five miles east of Epping, in a dappled clearing in the dark heart of the ancient  wild-wood that today bears its name, there is the extraordinary church  of St Andrew in Greensted. Greensted Church, as it is more commonly known, is purportedly the oldest wooden church  in the world.  The original  church on the site was probably built at least as long ago as the middle of the seventh century, the   time that St Cedd set about converting the East Saxons to Christianity from his base at Bradwell-on-Sea  (incidentally, Cedd went on to attend the Synod of Whitby in 664, and to die of the plague in Northumbria later that same year).  Sadly, though, the only remaining physical evidence as to the existence of this structure  is in the form of post-holes discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1960.  Work began on the present church in the middle of the eleventh century  (dendrochronological evidence acquired in 1995 indicating  that the trees used in its  construction were felled between 1060-3).   Nearly a thousand years later, much  of nave  still stands, incorporated into later extensions.  It  was evidently originally windowless, aside from some small “eag-thyrels” or eye-holes, and a single larger “niche”, known by many as  a lepers’ “squint”.  Rather wonderfully, scorch-marks can still be seen  on some of the wall timbers, suggesting that  the gloomy interior was once lit by wall-mounted lamps.   Adze-marks can also still be seen on some timbers.

DARK AGE LONDON contd.

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History

Everyday life would have continued to revolve around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.

Saxon  women were granted some not inconsiderable freedoms in law, and although their principal responsibilities were household, they also held the rights to own land.

Religion

The early Saxons were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries onwards.

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In 597, Pope Gregory I sent a mission from Rome to attempt their wholesale conversion, one of the members of which was Augustine, and another Mellitus, which latter went on to become the first Bishop of London in 604, and the third Archbishop of Canterbury in 615.  In 616, the previously converted East Saxons temporarily  reverted to paganism, after the death of their King. As the Venerable Bede put it in 731, in his “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”): “In the year of our Lord 616 … the death of Sabert [Sebert], King of the East Saxons … left three sons, still pagans, to inherit his … crown.  They immediately began openly to give themselves up to idolatry, … and … granted free licence to their subjects to serve idols.  And when they saw the bishop [Mellitus] … celebrating Mass … , filled, as they were, with folly and ignorance, they said unto him … ‘We will not enter into that font, because we … do not stand in need of it, and yet we will be refreshed by that bread’.  And being … earnestly admonished by him, that this could by no means be done, nor would any one be admitted to partake of the sacred Oblation without the holy cleansing, …  they said, filled with rage, ‘If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that which we require, you shall not stay in our province’.  And they drove him out … and his company … from their Kingdom [Essex] … ”.

The early Vikings were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from the ninth century onwards.

Food and Drink

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Evidence from finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City,  indicates that the  agricultural economy centred on the production of cereal crops, including  wheat, barley, oats and rye, and of cattle, presumably for milk as well as meat. Pulses, nuts, fruit and berries were also produced and consumed.

Note in this context that plant- and animal- based remedies featured prominently in early Medieval medicine.  The Old English text in the mid tenth-century “Bald’s Leechbook” describes, among other things, how  salves  and potions were used to treat not only injuries and infections, but also, rather wonderfully, visitations from elves (aelfcynne), night goblins (nihtgehgan) and devils (deofol).   And the Old English and Latin text and accompanying illustrations in an anonymous early eleventh-century herbal indicate that both parsley (peterslilie) and sweet basil or “snake plant” (naedderwyrt) were used to treat snake bites.

Population

The population of Saxon London is estimated to have been at the most several thousand (that is, significantly less than that of Roman London).

Administration and Governance

Saxon London was for the most part only a  regional rather than a national administrative centre, as the “Seven Kingdoms” only finally  united to become England under Alfred’s grandson Athelstan in 924 (the “Seven Kingdoms”, also known as the  “Heptarchy”,  comprised East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex; of these, Essex, Mercia and Wessex in turn held  sway over London).  Nonetheless, it was the site of both the folkmoot, or outdoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval (St) Paul’s Cross;  and the husting or indoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval Guildhall.  Saxon society was comparatively democratic, and any free man  was entitled to voice his opinion at the folkmoot (and, as noted above, Saxon women were also granted some freedoms in law).  However, only a noble  ealdorman, or earl, appointed by the King could attend the husting,  and only Kings, greater nobles and bishops the peripatetic Witanagemot or Witan.    Saxon Society was also comparatively meritocratic,  and permissive of a measure of mobility, albeit within an overall  hierarchy (note that although Kings were elected, they  were elected from  within the ranks  of the nobility).  The highest among the free men were the thanes, or knights, the lowest the various classes of ceorls, or peasants (whence Cerle-ton or Charlton in south-east London).  Below them were the theows, or slaves.

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Perhaps the most famous law-giver of Saxon times was Alfred, who in the late 880s or early 890s established a new code of law, based on Christian principles, and enshrined in the so-called  “Domboc”.  The code established  folk-rights and privileges.  Judicial  courts ruled  on cases of alleged breaches, and meted  out such fines or corporal or capital punishments as were deemed appropriate.  Some of the punishments appear barbaric by modern standards, such as the possible judicial  drowning of a  Saxon woman whose skeleton has recently been excavated  at Queenhithe (by the mid-tenth century, a woman could be punished by drowning either for  theft, according to laws laid down between 924-39, or for witchcraft, as mentioned in a charter of 963-75).  That is not to mention the supposedly “oath-helping” Ordeals by Fire, Iron or Water!  Athelstan passed laws relating specifically to the governance of London in the succeeding early tenth century (he reigned from 924-39).  His “Judicia Civitatis Londoniae” makes explicit reference to a governance structure comprising a single governor, or in effect a mayor (in place of a bishop and port-reeve), “eorlish” aldermen, and “ceorlish” commons.

Trade and Commerce

Foodstuffs continued to be brought into Saxon  London from the immediate hinterland.  Other goods continued to be  brought in    by boat from all around northern Europe, including the Low Countries and Scandinavia, and also, in the case of precious stones, gold, silk and other luxuries, even further afield.

DARK AGE (SAXON AND VIKING) LONDON  

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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

History

Considerably less is known about this period of history than either the succeeding or indeed even the preceding one, such that it is often referred to as the “Dark Ages”.  One of the reasons we know so little is that the Saxons appear to have built almost exclusively using perishable materials such as timber, wattle-and-daub, and thatch, which typically leave very little archaeological record.

What is known is that there was essentially a hiatus in the occupation of London between when the Romans left, in the  fifth century, and when the Saxons arrived in numbers at the turn of the sixth and seventh (archaeological evidence points to a Saxon presence in the city, although not a full-scale occupation, from around 430-450).

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When the Saxons did arrive, they chose for some reason to make  their principal  settlement about a mile to the west (upstream), and without the walls, of the  old Roman City of Londinium, around what is now Aldwych in the City of Westminster, and they named it Lundenwic.

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Lundenwic became  subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings in the ninth century.  On the wings of dragons  they came in 839, axes agleam, and according to the Old English “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, went  only after “great slaughter”.  And back they came in 851 “and stormed … London”, and again in 872 “and there chose their winter-quarters”.

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Then in 878, Alfred the Great emerged from the fastnesses of Athelney to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire, and subsequently to force them to withdraw into what became known as the Danelaw in the  north and east of the country  (east of the River Lea in London).   Eight years later, in 886, according to Asser, a monk and later Bishop of Sherborne, in his “Life of King Alfred”, written in 893, he “restored the [Roman] city of London [Londinium] … splendidly … and  made it habitable again … ”; and moved the  Saxon settlement to within its perimeter and river walls, and renamed it Lundenburg.  In the process, he  set out the street plan that still in essence survives to this day.  He then “entrusted it  [and command of its burgwara or militia] to the care of [his son-in-law] Ethe(l)red, ealdorman of the Mercians”, to hold it under him.

The raids continued, though.  In 994, again according to the “Chronicle”, “[the Danish King] Swein [Forkbeard] came into London …  with 94 ships, and they proceeded to attack the city stoutly and wished also to set it on fire … .  But the holy Mother of God showed her mercy to the citizens on that day and saved them from their enemies”.

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In   1013, the city fell again to the Danish Vikings, albeit again only temporarily, being retaken in 1014 by the English King Ethelred “The Unready”, in alliance with the Norwegian Viking Olaf, Olav or Olave  Haraldsson.  According to the Norse “Olaf Sagas”, Olaf  destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge and the Danish  Viking army assembled on it by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.  The  court poet Ottar Svarte wrote, in the eleventh century, and Snorri Sturluson rewrote, in the thirteenth: “London Bridge is broken down.|Gold is won, and bright renown.|Shields resounding, war-horns sounding,|Hild is shouting in the din!|Arrows singing, mail-coats ringing-|Odin makes our Olaf win” (many believe this ode to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”).   Olaf later converted to Christianity, and, as King Olaf II, introduced the religion to Norway in 1015.  He went on to be martyred fighting heathen Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and to be canonised by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel in 1031 (the local canonisation was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164).  In the later Middle Ages, his tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim], became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”.  Interestingly, a  number of churches in and around the City of London are  or were dedicated to him,   including  St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Broad Street, St Olave Hart Street, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street in the City, St Olave in Southwark, and St Olave in Rotherhithe.

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Then, in 1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle the Saxon Edmund “Ironside”, son of Ethelred and Aelgifu of York,  to become King of England as well as Denmark; and in 1017 he married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, one of the more remarkable women of the age, wife of two Kings, mother of two more, and in her own right an influential political as well as an important dynastic figure, as described in the “Encomium Emmae Reginae”.  Cnut was in turn succeeded by Harold “Harefoot”, his son by Aelgifu of Northampton, in 1035, and  Hardicanute, his son by Emma,  in  1040.

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Finally, the Saxon Edward “The Confessor”, son of Ethelred and Emma,   became King when the Viking Hardicanute died, leaving no heir, in 1042; and the ill-fated Harold Godwinson, Harold II, in 1066.

Saint Olav(e)

On this day in 1030, the Norwegian King Olav II was killed fighting the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad.  A year later, he was canonised by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel (the local canonisation was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164).

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In the later Middle Ages, Olav’s tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim], became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”.

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Interestingly, a  number of churches in and around the City of London are  dedicated to St Olav(e),  including  St Olave Hart Street (pictured, above) …

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… St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street (pictured, above) in the City …

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… St Olave in Southwark …

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…  and St Olave in Rotherhithe.

This is because, in 1014, Olav Haraldsson, as he then was, was an ally of the Saxon English, under Ethelred “The Unready”, in their fight against the against the Viking Danish, under Cnut, and he helped relieve  Saxon London from Viking occupation  (albeit only temporarily).

According to the “Olaf Sagas”, he destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge, and the Viking army assembled on it poised to attack, by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.

The  court poet Ottar Svarte wrote, in the eleventh century, and Snorri Sturluson rewrote, in the thirteenth:

“London Bridge is broken down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding, war-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing, mail-coats ringing-

Odin makes our Olaf win!”

Many believe this to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”.